By Lee Kah Whye
“Nothing has changed as far as content is concerned. Content is king. If a media company does not have good content, it cannot attract an audience,” says Anthony Tan, Deputy CEO, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).
Trust is valuable
Great content is expensive and requires a sustainable business model to sell the product and pay for the journalists who produce it, Tan said in opening his keynote address to WAN-IFRA’s Asian Media Leaders eSummit.
Timeliness, accuracy and good commentary builds trust, he said, adding that in an age of information overload, trust is a key to attracting users to your brand.
Advertising has been a big part of the newspaper business model to pay for good content, “but maybe less so these days,” Tan said. With subscriber revenue growing in importance, especially in digital, newspapers are searching for a new sustainable business model.
“Great products that people don’t buy will end up in the trash heap of history. When you have good content, you need a good team to sell it to advertisers, partners and subscribers,” – Anthony Tan, SPH
SPH’s digital journey began 20 years ago with AsiaOne, a news aggregation portal that largely gave content away for free. The view at the time was that online would not take away from the lucrative print business because readers were wedded to their newspaper.
“We didn’t really think about the business model,” Tan said. “Now we realised, just as governments around the world, once you give things away for free it’s very hard to take it back.”
From ‘digital first’ to ‘audience first’
Now, Tan said they are steering the company away from a digital first strategy and focusing on its audience.
“Audience first means are you really thinking of your audience when you lay out your website, your app, or the way you tell stories in a digital form. Or, are you just replicating what was in print, in the digital space?” he said.
SPH partnered with South Korean electronics giant Samsung to sell a two-year subscription to SPH products bundled onto a Samsung tablet. The first product was aimed at Chinese language newspaper readers who tended to be older and who struggled with technology. The package enabled users to access stories immediately after turning on the device.
The product was a success, with 70 percent of the tablet subscribers counted as new readers, Tan said, adding that a similar rollout with The Straits Times sold 35,000 two-year subscriptions with tablets.
“Regardless of platform, whether it be digital, print or otherwise …. you really need to be audience first. The audience really needs to sit at the centre of your product journey,” – Anthony Tan
Competition is everywhere
SPH’s competition is not just online platforms or digital players, Tan said, adding that traditional lines between television and radio have blurred with the internet and has enabled newspapers to deliver videos and podcasts.
“The internet allows content to be delivered without proprietary hardware, cabling or discrete subscriptions,” Tan said. “Competition today is all round.”
However, Tan said it can be a positive if traditional media companies find ways to collaborate with platforms and content companies, he said.
A competitive advantage for newspapers is their role in the community. Unlike international media and digital platforms, Tan said: “We have intimacy with our audience. We have coverage of local events and we need that to maintain the competitive edge.”
For example, SPH’s Malay language newspaper, Berita Harian, is engaging its community with podcasts that are popular with Malay youth, as well as talk shows on Facebook Live.
During the pandemic lockdown in Singapore, SPH supported local retailers by discounting classified ad rates, and raised funds for COVID relief efforts through its corporate social responsibility programmes, Tan said.
“We are part of the community. To be able to maintain familiarity and intimacy with local readers and the local business community is important,” – Anthony Tan
Knowing what readers would like to consume, even before they know it, is valuable data for newspapers, Tan said.
“If I reach that nirvana stage, I think we’ll be in a very good place,” he said, adding that data is critical for advertisers too, of course.
Conversion data can help advertisers understand how many people are seeing their ads in SPH products and whether it leads to a purchase. Without that data, SPH could lose its key role as an intermediary between the seller and customer, Tan said.
SPH has strengthened its data and analytics team, and developed algorithms to track audience behavior and the propensity for new subscriptions. “We want people in the newsroom, in circulation, (and) our advertising sales team to learn to use the data,” he said.
That means newsrooms with journalists and editors sitting next to product managers and data analysts, working collaboratively to ensure that the product and content delivered appeals to the audience.
“A culture of change is the ‘secret sauce’ for the news industry after a battering over the past 20 years,” – Anthony Tan, SPH
About the author: Lee Kah Whye is Director at Project Mercury, a media business consultancy. Before this, he spent nearly 20 years at Reuters and was head of the news agency business for Asia.